When Operation Streamline Deters: One Immigrant's Story
It took Adalid Arteaga nearly two months to travel, on foot and by train, the 1,100 miles from Honduras to Nuevo Laredo last fall.
Exhausted from the journey, Arteaga, at 43, was hardly the spry twentysomething he'd been the last time he'd illegally crossed into the United States. Crouching out of sight in the bushes near the Texas-Mexico border, he prayed he wouldn't be caught. In his pocket, Arteaga carried a Delta Dental insurance card—a remnant of the life from which he'd been swept away several weeks earlier. He'd been stopped for a traffic violation and then deported from his home in Boston to a country he hadn't seen since he was a young man.
When he landed in Honduras in September 2009, he found himself in an unfamiliar country troubled by years of civil unrest and widespread poverty. Growing up in Central America, Arteaga had longed for a better life in the U.S. And in the nearly 20 years since he came here, he'd met and married an American woman, Leah, with whom he had three children and built a construction business in Boston. Together, they paid taxes, kept in touch with immigration officials and tried their best to live as though Arteaga's illegal status wasn't always looming in their minds.
Thoughts of Leah and the kids had sustained him on his 1,000-mile journey across Mexico. A man who'd agreed to give Arteaga a ride to a bus stop was pulled over for speeding last Halloween in Cotulla, Texas, and Arteaga was arrested, found hiding in the bed of the truck. Because he'd already been deported once, he had little recourse against a border initiative called Operation Streamline, which moves border crossing offenses from civil courts into the criminal justice system. As a second-time offender, Arteaga was practically guaranteed prison time when he appeared before the federal magistrate in Laredo. Today, he is serving a 27-month sentence for illegal reentry. When his time is up, he'll be deported once more to Honduras, far away from the life he worked hard to build.
"That was a dream," Arteaga says of the years he spent creating a new life for himself. Sitting in a courtyard within the barbed-wire walls of the Eden Detention Center near San Angelo, he occasionally tears up when he thinks of how much he misses his sons and wife. Collect calls and letters are not enough, he says.
A second chance is what Arteaga and his family have been fighting for ever since he married Leah in 1997. From the beginning, he told her he was undocumented, that he had picked up a felony drug possession charge in California, only three days after his first border crossing in 1992. He had asked some men—the first Spanish speakers he had the guts to approach—if he could wash his clothes and take a shower at their home. While there, the house was raided, drugs were found and he went to jail, even though, he says, he had no idea there were drugs in the house. The prosecutor didn't see it that way and his lawyer told him if he pleaded guilty, he would be out in a few months; if he fought the charges and lost, he could expect a much harsher sentence. So he took the deal. "I was so scared," he says, "I didn't know in the future, it could get me separated from my family."
Right after he married, he began petitioning the courts to get the felony conviction expunged so that he might seek citizenship. In April 1999, he was successful but that same year, a harsh new immigration law passed, which barred expungements for most illegal immigrants, including Arteaga.
But the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) seemed fairly unconcerned with his immigration status. Between 2005 and 2009, the Arteagas reopened immigration proceedings and Adalid was placed under an order of supervision, checking in periodically with ICE officials. In the summer of 2009, Arteaga was even granted a work permit in the U.S.
But then in July 2009, while creeping through a long line of cars leaving his son's soccer game, he grazed the shoulder of a traffic cop who pulled him over. Arteaga admitted he had been drinking to the officer who arrested him. That would be the last time he would see his sons. Though his wife made bond on the DUI charge, ICE detained him, and within weeks he was deported. She says she turned to those ICE officials she had met through their long citizenship battle, but they were no help.
"As a mother and as a wife, you are overwhelmed with fear," recalls Leah during a phone interview from Boston. She knew he would try to reenter the United States. After all, there was nothing for him in Honduras.
Because of this failed reentry, he will not be released from prison until the spring of 2012. And then it's deportation to Honduras again, where he will again have to restart his life. Another reentry conviction would mean "big, big time," he says. Maybe a decade in prison, or more.
He realizes that Honduras is no place to raise his American-born sons, and he is coming to grips with the possibility that he may never see them again. His children seem equally devastated by the loss of their father; his oldest, now 13, attempted suicide, Leah says, and their six-year-old has developed a habit of hiding his mother's shoes, hoping it will prevent her from leaving him, too.
Unable to stifle her own tears, Leah sobs over the phone. "He was my best friend. To know that you're never going to get him back, there's a great deal of hopelessness."
Operation Streamline|Adalid Arteaga|Honduras|
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter